The Cultural Whiplash of a Second-Generation Korean American

seoyoung kwon
Asian Voices Matter
11 min readApr 26, 2020

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Unpacking my childhood, and with it, my bitterness

I am neither fully Korean nor American. My Korean-ness and my American-ness are intertwined, feeding off of each other to create the unique Korean American identity that gives me both joy and pain.

Growing up in Austin, TX, in the early 2000s involved many moments colored with embarrassment and shame because of my culture and heritage.

During lunch one day in 1st grade, I opened the scratched Ziploc container that held 주먹밥/jumeokbap (rice balls) that had just the right amount of 멸치/myeolchi (anchovies) and juicy 참치/chamchi (tuna) in the middle. Everyone around me at the cafeteria table scrunched their noses up at the strong smell, as if my mother’s hours-long labor in the kitchen hand-crafting the rice balls with soy sauce-soaked plastic gloves amounted to wet dog food. One classmate spat out, “What is that smell?” This inevitable question that would ring in the air right after I cracked open my lunch would become a dreaded question that plagued my elementary and middle school memories.

Had I found the confidence or known what to say then, I would have argued that strong and fermented smells had its rightful place alongside other foods. These were the smells that represented home to me, and the smells I would find at the middle of the dining table. On top of the rickety wood in the middle there would be a big silver pot filled with some kind of 찌개/jjigae (stew), surrounded by the multitude of white porcelain dishes with stacked hills of 갈비/galbi, 잡채/japchae, spinach, regular and acorn tofu sprinkled with sesame seeds, and 김치/kimchi. On the side would be small lakes of the vinegar, soy sauce, and sesame seeds mixture, perfect for 만두/mandu and 두부/tofu to be dipped in.

In the kitchen, I let myself be engulfed by billowing clouds of steam. If the smells coming from the kitchen weren’t strong, fermented, savory, or subtly sweet, I instantly knew that Mom was either baking or cooking American-style food like pasta or mac and cheese. She switched to foods like mini waffles with cream cheese and swirly pasta with peanut sauce when I told her the Korean food she made for me attracted unwanted attention in my classes and in the cafeteria. After this switch, I developed a particular liking for red bean and cream cheese combinations, since Mom still found ways to put elements of Korean food into my now American-style food.

These are the stark, vivid memories that pop up when I find myself, over a decade later, sitting with my friends in one of several K-BBQ places in Oakland, CA, accessible via a 10-minute drive or 16-minute AC Transit bus ride. One friend is the “designated meat flipper,” as if this were a life-long ritual that my friends had engaged in. Without being instructed by a waiter or restaurant worker, they somehow already know to only flip the meat once with the metal tongs, because this preserves its juiciness. The moment the meat is deemed ready and taken off the grill, my friends dig into the 삼겹살/samgyeopsal (pork belly) with a cheer and then a wince, the pork belly still too hot and burning the roofs of mouths as they savor the rich, fatty flavor.

Another distinct, yet related, memory infiltrates my mind, transporting me to the sticky, burning summer of 2018. In 경주/Gyeongju, rural Southeast Korea, I’m drinking beer with my 할머니/halmeoni (grandma) and 고모/gomo (aunt). As I down my first shot glass, I remember to turn my face to the side, because it’s seen as rude to drink in front of elders.

I didn’t learn how to do this from my mom, who will only go for a glass of wine to help her sleep, or my dad, the kind of person to deny his alcoholic tendencies as he pops his daily can of beer. I learned to do this from a Buzzfeed video with Evan Ghang, a native Korean, teaching the proper Korean drinking etiquette to Steven Lim, a Chinese Malaysian American, in one of his “Worth It” videos. I was Steven, but unlike him, I wasn’t experiencing feelings of novelty for learning a cool new custom from a culture that wasn’t his own. Instead, I felt like I had experienced amnesia and was re-learning aspects of a culture that I was already expected to know as my own, like an alien who somehow shared ties with a society she hadn’t grown up with.

My grandma complimented me, because she was impressed by this gesture and how seemingly culturally-aware I was. I was ashamed.

The shaming I got from my non-Korean, very American, very white peers for the food I brought — which to them was eclectic and exotic, but to me, familiar and at-home — would’ve been tolerable if I had a community to rely on who provided support and refuge from the shame I received. Yet, there was an even more pervasive, sinister shaming that I endured from the Korean and Korean American community.

The shaming I received from this community stemmed from how I was raised. When I was born, I was taught both Korean and English. Up until the age of 3, I lived the life of a typical Korean American kid in Austin, TX, and more importantly, I knew an equal level of Korean and English. Unlike the few Korean neighborhood kids who lived near me, however, I wasn’t enrolled in weekend Korean school the moment I entered preschool and had my first contact with the English-dominant school system.

Mom knew from raising 오빠/oppa (big brother) that I needed to quickly build up my English vocabulary. 오빠 not only agreed, but also said, according to Mom, that there was no way that he could have “a stupid sister.” He proceeded to mentor me for the next several years of elementary and middle school on anything writing-related, from creative writing to literary analysis.

Maybe it was the incredible emphasis Mom put on the SAT. Maybe it was her understandable fear that if I didn’t master English as quickly as my native Texan peers that I would never blend in. Regardless, what I remember is my childhood consisting of practicing SAT vocabulary, reading books like Pride and Prejudice, Mice and Men, and Fathers and Sons, and finishing them without truly knowing what exactly those stories were trying to convey.

By 4th grade, I was replying to Mom’s Korean only in English.

With this kind of upbringing, it was inevitable that my Korean would stagnate while my English levels soared. With how I looked and how little I spoke at school, though, my own teacher assumed that I knew more Korean and less English. It felt like a slap in the face when I was placed in an ESL class in 1st grade. I belonged with Ashley, Destiny, Maddie, and Rachel in the regular 1st grade classroom, not with Junghyun, Jimin, and Yoonseo in the ESL class. It was decorated in a way that made me feel like I was back in preschool, regressing instead of progressing in my language skills.

Outside of the ESL classroom, however, I tried to blend in with the Korean kids on the playground. The Korean kids would usually be in their own group, away from the majority-white kids who hogged the swings or slides or the nosy teacher substitutes. Junghyun made a joke in Korean, and I, standing on the outskirts of the ring of other Korean kids, laughed along with them, despite not being able to understand what she said. But predators can smell fear in prey, and Junghyun zeroed in on me. With the high, pretentious voice and condescending attitude she adopted from her strict, overbearing mother, she remarked, “That wasn’t meant for you to laugh at — you can’t even understand me!” Everyone else laughed, and the playground blurred as I hung my head.

These childhood classroom experiences created the breeding ground for my still-ongoing shame in my apparent lack of language competency. Furthermore, the more I interacted with Koreans and Korean Americans around me, the more I realized the existence of an invisible but powerful hierarchical structure.

  • On the top, there were native Koreans or Korean Americans who were fluent/conversational in Korean and in touch with their culture.
  • Underneath, there were Korean Americans who weren’t completely fluent or conversational but in touch with their culture or vice versa.
  • At the bottom, there were Korean Americans who lacked fundamental knowledge of Korean culture and were barely conversational in Korean or didn’t speak it.

I was at the bottom of a hierarchy that others believed in and followed by, and that made me later believe that this hierarchy not only existed but also needed to be climbed up. I was ashamed that I didn’t know enough about my heritage, and I was ashamed that I didn’t speak at a conversational level.

Little did I know that when I did improve my Korean and take much greater interest in informing myself about my heritage and culture — through questions here and there with Mom and Dad and intensive searching of the internet — I would apply this hierarchy that once placed me at the bottom and use it to my advantage. I falsely pitted myself against and elevated myself above other Korean Americans who weren’t “true” Korean Americans because they knew less Korean or less about their heritage than I did. This was a hierarchy that was detrimental to my self perception and destructive against a community I was supposed to be building greater collaborative ties with, not ripping apart with this stupid social hierarchy I was introduced to years earlier.

I battled two hierarchies that were imposed on and later internalized by me: one by the Korean/Korean American community, where I needed to remember my roots and learn to speak Korean fluently if I wanted my voice to be heard, and one by the white-dominated spaces of America, where I needed to learn English and acculturate to fit in. Whether at home or outside, I was never secure about my identity.

Now, in 2020, we live in a world where the Hallyu Wave has broken onto the shores of Western-dominated media. Parasite has won the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film (even though Parasite is perhaps one of the most relevant films I’ve watched, as it highlights the U.S.’s worst struggles with socioeconomic inequality despite its medium of “foreign” non-English language). K-dramas have become an acceptable pastime to list as a “fun fact” of classmates at parties, in classrooms, or in social situations as a whole. K-pop songs that have gone viral and popular K-hiphop and K-r&b songs are welcomed in party playlists and danced along to in TikToks. Online forums and physical, on-campus clubs dedicated to the consumption of K-pop and expression in the form of K-pop dances are rampant and only growing in popularity.

And yet, I am bitter*. I outwardly cringe when people shoot finger hearts at me. If I see a BT21 keychain on someone I don’t know, my brain jumps to “Koreaboo” or other related stereotypes. I scoff when non-Korean people comment on the success of Korean entertainment, whether it be related to K-pop, K-dramas, or Korean celebrities in general, and use their analyses to then make general statements about the economy or society of South Korea.

But why do I have this strong aversion and bitterness, when a decade or two ago, I would have wanted this attitude towards Korean pop culture or any perspective that didn’t treat me as lesser for not being wholly “American”?

My bitterness is the after-effect of the cultural whiplash that I and many other Korean Americans have experienced in the last two decades. We were forced to blend in and acculturate with culturally-white Americans in the late 90s and 00s, only to suddenly be fetishized in the 2010s because we happened to come from the same background as people’s now-favorite idols. We and our food, fashion, beauty trends, entertainment, and everything else are now the next trendy items for others to obsess over. When our 15 minutes of fame are up and society picks the next best and trendy culture, we and our culture and heritage will be tossed to the side, disrespected, and forgotten — we lose our “value” because we’re no longer marketable or appealing enough to be mass-consumed. There is a difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation and fetishization, but this difference becomes hazy when capitalism is involved.

Korean Americans went from being unappealing for our “foreign” heritage in the early 2000s to being idolized for the same “foreign” heritage in 2020 — American society has never stopped exocitizing and othering Korean Americans. This time, however, this exoticization isn’t actively being talked about by the Korean community. My guess as to why? It motivates more K-pop and K-drama fans to come to Korea and act as consumers, contributing to Korea’s growing tourism industry and South Korea’s economy. Members of the Korean American community have dealt with the cultural whiplash that has dominated their upbringing without being able to acknowledge their resentment and bitterness. It’s time to make space for this much-needed conversation.

The overseas capitalistic success that Korea’s tourism and entertainment industries have experienced does not erase or justify the years of shame I endured being Korean American in a white-dominated environment. The fact that BTS, for example, has contributed a statistically significant percentage of Korea’s GDP (the conclusion of solely one particular study done by the Hyundai Institute**) does not make them my or Korea’s heroes. Thriving Korean pop culture-driven capitalism from the Hallyu Wave doesn’t liberate me from what I went through. Instead, it deepens the resentment I feel.

It seems that many have forgotten that before Korean pop culture was cool, Korean Americans — especially those like me who weren’t or still aren’t fluent in Korean or are still learning more about their culture — grew up insecure with their own identities. One particular narrative does not liberate everyone’s experiences and does not overwrite anyone else’s. Society doesn’t get to pretend like decades of xenophobia, racism, and fetishization that made Korean Americans repress their own identities and heritages aren’t relevant anymore because Korean pop culture and media are experiencing booming success and popularity abroad. My experience and the experiences of other Korean Americans growing up will not be invalidated and forgotten.

Notes:

*I’m not alone in my bitterness as an Asian American. In her new book “Dear Girls,” Ali Wong mentions her own irritation with eating Asian food with “non-Asian people.” She describes how she, like me, was “one of the few Asian kids in kindergarten” and how the all the “same white kids” who used to call her “a fucking vulture for eating [her] meat to the bone and sucking out the marrow” and make fun of her “‘smelly’ and ‘weird’ lunch” now “post pics of their chimichurri bone marrow dish” and fish for “likes.”

**Countless news outlets, from Billboard, Forbes, the Korea Herald, and Axios to Refinery 29 and South China Morning Post, have reported the famous statistic that BTS has brought a total “4.65 billion dollars” to the Korean economy. To get access to the original report that had this statistic, go to Hyundai Institute’s official website, http://www.hri.co.kr/. Scroll to the bottom until you see the Sitemap and locate “연구보고스” or “Economic Reports” and the topic underneath titled “경제,” or “Economy.” Clicking on “Economy” will take you to another webpage, and in the search function, type “BTS.” The report “방탄소년단(BTS)의 경제적 효과” or “BTS’s Economic Benefits” will pop up. Unfortunately, to actually read this report, you will have to download and convert the .hwp file to a .pdf file.

Additional Note:

In the last few months, as the number of SARS-CoV-2 cases in the U.S. have risen, the number of racism-fueled assaults against Asian Americans and Asians have also climbed. I mention this horrible cause-and-effect relationship because this adds further distress and complexity in how the Asian American identity is shaped and perceived by others. Like other PoC identities in American pop culture, Asian cultures and identities experience the frustrating dichotomy of being fetishized and attacked at the same time.

Edit (7/5/2020):

I changed all instances of “Asian-American” and “Korean-American” to “Asian American” and “Korean American” respectively. This choice stems from explanations you can read in a Conscious Style Guide article, a CNN Op-Ed, and an article by Grammarphobia.

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seoyoung kwon
Asian Voices Matter

jen or jenny (they/them) · korean american, genderqueer, thriving in the inbetween & nuance · twitter: @kwonjs_dc